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Monday May 14, 2007
Smoking is the stupidest thing you can do to your own body, short of hurling it off a ferry. It turns your fingers yellow, your teeth brown, and your lungs black. Lungs. Lungs. While I was smoking I often pictured my lungs, just to torture myself; in my mind’s eye, years of steady puffing had transformed them from cheery pink wet breathing baubles into a brittle pair of crackling, desiccated paper bags, dangling side by side like twin toasted wholemeal pitta breads filled with tar and tumours. Little wonder I wanted to quit.
But I couldn’t. For years, cigarettes and I were trapped in an abusive relationship. They beat me up, internally speaking, yet I couldn’t live without them. To say I smoked like a chimney would be misleading. A chimney emits smoke serenely, with little apparent effort. I screwed my face up like a constipated pug, dragging on one deathstick after another like it was my second career. I even smoked in the shower. Honestly. It’s easier than you think.
Every so often, I’d come to my senses and kick the fags out, promising myself it really was over for good this time. And then, months down the line, I’d forget about the bad times, forgive all the damage. Truth was, I still fancied them. And in a weak moment, after a few drinks, there I was, back in their arms. If they had arms, which they don’t.
Still I wanted out. I tried cold turkey. Lasted 12 hours and wound up walking to an all-night garage in tears. Next came the patches. You have incredible dreams on patches; vivid 3D Imax productions like you wouldn’t believe. One night I spent hours floating in space wielding a gigantic cannon, firing planets into suns and watching them explode. Stick that up your Spiderman 3.
Thanks to the patches, I quit for five years. Then I had a harrowing break-up and decided it would be a wheeze to amplify my misery by taking up smoking again. This time, the habit stuck fast. I tried the patches again, but my heart wasn’t in it. I ended up using them as a “pause button” for the habit proper: I’d slap a patch on in the morning, pretend not to smoke all day, then peel it off at night and puff my way through a 10-pack. Some time later I started going out with someone who thought I had quit. When she stayed at mine, I’d smoke in secret; pop out “to buy a paper” and light up round the corner. With judicious use of breath mints, you can get away with that for a surprisingly long time. And it’s genuinely exciting, like an illicit affair.
Naturally, I got caught out one night. A lighter flew out of my pocket while I was getting undressed. For several minutes I stood there in my pants, indignantly bellowing that it must have fallen through the ceiling, from the flat upstairs. I don’t lie well under pressure.
This madness couldn’t continue, so I resolved to quit once and for all. Hypnotism proved effective, by which I mean painless. I did it several times. Contrary to expectation, the hypnotist didn’t programme me to assassinate Tony Blair, just stop lighting up: 72 hours with a bad mood and a head cold and the nicotine had gone. The problem was that three-month mark: three months into my new life, I’d visit a pub and somehow come out smoking. And after my last lapse, I was too ashamed to return to the hypnotist. Instead, I tried a miracle pill I’d heard about. Zyban, the prescription wonder.
You take one a day for six days, then increase the dose. After 11 days, you stop smoking. Stay on the pills for seven weeks, and you’re done.
It worked. Eleven days in I didn’t want to smoke, as though the nicotine-craving bit of my brain had been deleted. A pharmaceutical magic trick.
But. There was a “but”. A week after my “quit date”, I was at home, watching a film with a friend. As the credits rolled, a frantic, nameless dread washed over me. Within minutes, I was a quivering wreck. My mind was drifting away from reality, tethered only by a narrow thread that might snap at any moment. Heart pounding, palms sweating. I clutched my head, blinking, hyperventilating, nerves jangling at 9,000 rpm.
It was a major panic attack, which eventually lasted over four hours, deep into the night. I’ve never known such terror. I became obsessed with the notion that I might snap at any moment; attack my friend, leap from a window, gouge my own eyes out with my thumbs, screaming, shrieking; a banshee. I’ve had better evenings in.
The next day I decided I’d had enough of that for one lifetime. I threw the pills away. Thing is, it takes days to clear your system. For a week, I walked around like a de-tuned radio, continually anxious, fighting insane paranoid notions; a horrified alien visitor on a tour of my own life. I was terrified it was permanent; slowly, normality returned.
Weeks later, I still can’t believe I was legally prescribed something that could bend my brain over its knee with such demented zeal – although it’s worth pointing out I have no evidence that what happened to me had anything to do with Zyban. All I know is it happened while I was taking the drug, and stopped several days after I binned the pills. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe I’m just crazy. I don’t know. I do know, however, that pharmaceutical companies have ominous legal departments orbiting the planet in almighty Death Stars, and that a lawyer twice as powerful as God is doubtless reading this right now.
Anyway. Smoking kills, and I’m glad I’ve stopped. Quitting’s worth it. Just don’t choose a cure worse than death.